x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

It is all about the start

The Ryder Cup is likely to get off to the most explosive of starts shortly after 8am Valhalla time today.

Sergio Garcia said he will be content to lose all five of his rubbers if Europe win the Ryder Cup for a fourth successive time.
Sergio Garcia said he will be content to lose all five of his rubbers if Europe win the Ryder Cup for a fourth successive time.

The Ryder Cup is likely to get off to the most explosive of starts shortly after 8am Valhalla time today (4pm UAE time) if the United States captain Paul Azinger follows through with his strong hint to put his two local favourites out first in a blatant attempt to whip up the emotions of what will be a partisan crowd. Kenny Perry and JB Holmes, archetypal Kentuckians both, walking out to hit the first American shots in anger in that nation's desperate attempt to wrest back golf's most coveted team trophy from buoyant European opponents would be akin to Padraig Harrington and Darren Clarke firing the opening salvos at Dublin's K Club in front of an adoring Irish audience two years ago.

Ian Woosnam, Europe's captain for that emphatic 2006 triumph, resisted such a temptation, but Azinger has frequently stressed how important it is for his team to start well if they are to end a run of three straight defeats and improve on a recent record of losing five out of the last six of these high-profile transatlantic confrontations. Azinger made no attempt to hide his feelings in the manner of his European counterpart Nick Faldo, who was embarrassed and irritated to have a scribbled note of his supposedly intended pairings photographed on a long-range lens.

"I am leaning towards them [Perry and Holmes] first up," Azinger declared after being pressed on the issue. "It makes sense for me to put my No 1 crowd get-goers (sic) out first." Holmes, 26, spoke as though it was a done deal as he relished the prospect of being cheered into stirring action by his Louisville neighbours. He maintains that he does not know the meaning of fear. "The easiest way to get somebody to be quiet is just to beat them," he said. "It doesn't matter who you are playing, if you play to the best of your ability you can win."

So Faldo should have a counter-measure in place to take the sting out of a planned flying start by his opponents in the first series of foursomes. The combination of Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood for instance. They have proved themselves to be Europe's best exponents of the difficult art of foursomes play (hitting alternate shots). Garcia, remarkably, has won all eight of his rubbers in that format and Westwood has won six out of 10 and halved two of the other four.

Garcia has taken on the Spanish mantle carried initially by the irrepressible Seve Ballesteros and passed on to Jose Maria Olazabal, now Faldo's vice captain, and the youngster has convinced everybody in the European camp that retaining the trophy outweighs any quest for individual honours. After one of his practice rounds this week he declared that he would rather lose all five of his rubbers and Europe win the Cup than secure five points in what was ultimately an American success.

If Garcia loses most of his individual battles, though, the chances are that Europe will also lose the war. He, along with Padraig Harrington, winner of three major championships in the last 15 months, and Westwood, have become the key members of the European team now that Colin Montgomerie and Clarke have departed. Faldo will be looking to that triumvirate to contribute a sizeable proportion of the 14 points Europe require to retain the Cup they need - 14½ to win it outright - against an American team containing six rookies among their 12 players.

Similarly, Azinger will be counting on his more famous names to deliver, a wish that has not been granted to previous recent American captains. Phil Mickelson, the world No 2, Perry, who has enjoyed a productive year in tournament play, and the experienced Jim Furyk will be expected to get on the scoresheet early and ease the final-day stress on the six new boys. The four morning foursomes matches will be followed by a series of four fourballs this afternoon and that format will be repeated tomorrow to determine the destiny of the first 16 points before the 12 men from each side contest the decisive round of singles on Sunday.

By then, I reckon it is unlikely that Europe will be as emphatically in charge as they have been in the last two Ryder Cups, but they should still have enough firepower in their ranks to hang on to the trophy, even if it is by virtue of a 14-14 draw which is by no means out of the question. wjohnson@thenational.ae